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What is belly dance

Updated: Apr 1, 2023

Belly dance is one of the most popular dances in the world today. It can be seen in TV shows and films, music videos and concerts of world show business stars.

Often, when people use the term oriental dance, they mean belly dance, although these concepts are not quite identical.

So let's take a closer look.

The term oriental dance can be used to describe any folklore dance that originated in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. Each of these countries, and even a certain area of it, has its own choreographic forms that have arisen historically and mostly do not include abdominal movements, are not exclusively female, and some dances are performed only by men. Since the countries of the Muslim world have historically shared a common cultural, political and economic space and interacted closely, dances have also been influenced by each other and have been similar. A striking example of this dance is the dabka. There are Lebanese, Jordanian, Syrian, Palestinian and other versions of it. A similar dance is the Turkish halay. We will talk more about the folklore dances of the Middle East in another article.

Palestinian dabkeh

One of the most popular forms of oriental dance in the world is the so-called belly dance. This name for a solo female oriental dance emerged in the 19th century, during Napoleon's colonisation of North Africa. The exotic hip and waist movements of Algerian and Egyptian dancers impressed Europeans because they contrasted with the step dances of Europe.

Thus, the term belly dance today refers to a female form of dance that, according to historians, dates back more than 6,000 years and originated in the Middle East and the Arabian Mediterranean. The emergence of this dance is associated with the temple rituals of ancient Phoenicia and Mesopotamia and the cults of worship of the Goddess of Fertility and the Great Mother Astratha (Inanna, Ishtar). Some scholars insist on its Egyptian origin. There are references to Egyptian dancers in the records of Herodotus.

In his book Pharaoh, Bolesław Prus mentions Phoenician dancers who were famous for their special skill and danced in the palaces of Egyptian rulers. The historian and paleontologist Ivan Efremov wrote about the temple dancers of Phoenicia in his book Tais of Athens.

The main features of belly dancing are wave-like movements of the abdomen and waist, circle-like movements of the hips and plastic snake-like movements of the arms. It is characterised by sensitivity and a certain eroticism, demonstrating the dancer's flexibility and fluidity of movement, which contrasts with sharp accentuated kicks and vibrations of the hips to the accompaniment of percussion instruments. It also contains isolated movements of the chest and shoulders. It is the isolation of movements that is one of the features of belly dance.

Although belly dancing is considered to be mostly female, it was also performed by men in the Ottoman Empire. Today, there are many male dancers who have achieved mastery and success in this dance.

Belly dance performed by Egyptian dancer and film actress Kitty

Belly dance is constantly evolving, changing and being influenced by other styles, and of course, modern versions of it differ significantly from historical forms. We can only judge how this dance looked like in the past from historians' descriptions, graphic images, and the movements that still live in some folk dances of the countries where it was popular.

Read about oriental dance styles in our other article.

Belly dance performed by Amira Abdi

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